Friday, July 19, 2013

The "Values" Found in the Republican's Proposed NASA Budget

There is more Republican idiocy going on in the House of Representatives concerning NASA's budget. Among the elements of the Republican NASA plan, they explicitly prohibit NASA from spending money on a mission to capture a small asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit.

(See, Wall Street Journal, NASA's Asteroid Plan Is Shot Down in House )

There are two reasons to be interested in asteroids and, among other things, in our ability to alter the course of an asteroid.

The first concerns the fact that somewhere, out there, there is an asteroid that will hit the earth. We do not yet know which one will hit us, when, or where, but it's out there.

In fact, there are several large enough enough to destroy a city. There's a few that can wipe out a country. And there is even at least one with enough power to set humanity back to the stone age - if it survives at all.

The second concerns the fact that the future of space development is to be found in the harvesting of material from asteroids.

The main fact relevant to this proposition is that it takes approximately .002 cubic kilometers of material to build 1 square kilometer of living space in a floating "space city". This city can have a level of artificial gravity suitable to human health, while at the same time having access to other regions with more or less gravity as best suits special circumstances. Inhabitants of the moon are stuck with 1/6 earth gravity, which is below the threshold for maining a healthy bone structure.

In other words, the material in the asteroid belt can be harvested to produce the living-space equivalent of 30,000 earths. While the moon has the same surface area as Africa and Mars has the same land-surface as Earth. (Three-fourth's of the Earth's surface is not on land.)

These space cities are best built in proximity to Earth to allow for easy trade and communication - as well for the potential rescue of its inhabitants in case of a disaster.

All of this involves learning how to capture the material of an asteroid, bring it into the proximity of the Earth without threatening Earth, and determine how best to use its resources.

What the Republicans want in its place is a "show piece" - something that the space enthusiasts call a "flags and footprints" mission. Like the Apollo program, it generates some press and public enthusiasm, but does nothing constructive - nothing useful. It wastes billions of dollars for the sake of "feeling good" and spends nothing on "doing good".

This provision of the Republican space bill is simply stupid. The Republican proposal has another element that is utterly malicious.

The Republican bill also slashes the funds for earth-science research. Much of this research is showing the deep harm being done to the rest of us - and our children and grandchildren - by those with money. Those with money do not want us to know about these harms so that they can continue to make money, even it it kills us (our chilcren, or our grand children). They want to keep us in the dark.

This is not a case of "what we do not know will not hurt us." This is a case of "What we do not know will allow others to make a great deal of money while intruducing a great deal of future suffering to those without money."

One of the things we know about climate change is that, if you make a modest amount of money, you can immunize yourself from its effects. You can move to higher elevations, buy air conditioning for your home and office, pay more for food and buy water, and afford the medical care that will protect you from or treat disease.

Climate change is a case of rich people getting richer by killing, maining, and imposing other forms of suffering on poor people - with the greatest harms falling on those with the least money.

As long as hard evidence is lacking - as long as earth science goes unfunded - they can gather more and more wealth to themselves while imposing greater and greater death and suffering on others.

These are the "values" that we find in the Republican NASA budget. Fluff and show over substantive progress in space development, and ignorance of the harms infliceted on the poor by the rich who accumulate more and more wealth.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

False Beliefs

False beliefs are bad.

Desirism accounts well for the badness of false beliefs. People seek to objectively satisfy their desires, but act so as to objectively satisfy their desires given their beliefs. In other words, they act in ways that would have objectively satisfied their desires in a world where their beliefs are true.

(Note: To say that a "desire that P" is "objectively satisfied" is to say that a state of affairs has been created in which P is true.)

My standard illustrative story about the problem of false beliefs is that of a thirsty jogger taking a drink of what she falsely believes is clean water. Her act would have objectively satisfied her desire in a world in which her beliefs are true, but not in a world where the water has, in fact, been poisoned.

On this model, I have said that liars are parasites. They infect their victims with a false belief so as to harvest their victims' efforts for their own ends. People generally have many and strong reasons to punish and condemn liars.

Desirism also identifies intellectual recklessness as a moral crime. A person who points a gun and pulls the trigger, falsely believing it not to be loaded, is reckless. A person properly concerned that his actions cause no harm to others will double-check important facts that risk bringing harm. We may condemn those who do not do so for their lack of concern.

Religions are full of false beliefs. As such, they cause people - even good people (meaning by this, people with desires people generally have reason to promote, and lacking desires people generally have reason to inhibit) to fail to fulfill and to sometimes thwart other desires. It is not the case - as Steven Weinberg claimed - "For good people to do evil things - that takes religion." What is true is that for good people to do evil things - that takes false beliefs.

A good person is not intellectually reckless. An intellectually reckless person is not good. But some false beliefs seep in regardless of an agent's intentions.

There are limits to our epistemic powers and, from this, to our culpability in the case of error.

Nobody has held all of their beliefs to the careful light of reason. It's impossible.

Our first beliefs are handed to us. We do not even have the capacity to reason. For those who claim they will not "indoctrinate" their child - what are you going to do, lock them in a dark, soundproof room until they have the capacity to reason? How do they gain such a capacity?

Even when we can think about our beliefs, holding a belief "up to the light of reason" means comparing beliefs to other beliefs - some of them having just been picked up.

We take shortcuts. We have to. Lacking time or ability to objectively verify and continually reverify everything we know, we use methods that are "good enough".

If a society was 95% atheist, my bet is that the bulk of that population will be atheists for exactly the same reason most are Christian in some countries today or Muslim in others. They will simply pick up the beliefs common in their society substantially without question. Later, when they apply the light of reason to future beliefs, much of that will involve comparing those beliefs to this arationally adopted base set and determine if they match or do not match. This is one of our shortcuts. This is how the human species survives. Sincerely, one of the things we can say about those standard beliefs is, "They got us this far."

When people focus on "religion" rather than "false belief" they open the door to two types of avoidable misakes - desire-thwarting mistakes, which is why I write against them.

First, they put too much too much emphasis on religious beliefs that are not causing people to behave in ways harmful to others. And, second, it takes the spotlight off of false beliefs that are not religious. As such, it takes efforts away from battling beliefs that cause greater harm and focuses effort on condemning those whose beliefs are relatively harmless.

Allow me to assume that everything I have written about desirism is true and that all other moral theories contain significant errors - just for illustrative purposes. It is quite possible to be a theist and still accept desirism. For example, one can believe that there is a god creator of the universe who created a universe in which some desires are malleable and we have been given the social tools of praise and condemnation to promote useful desires and inhibit harmful desires. At the same time, the atheist can believe in Marxism, Objectivism, Act Utilitarianism, Common Moral Relativism - or any of a dozen other error-ridden theories prompting, in some cases, "good people to do evil things".

And, yes, I consider Marxism, Objectivism, and Moral Relativism more destructive than some religions. Act utiltarianism fails to be dangerous because it simply cannot be put into practice. Human beings do not work the way that act utilitarianism requires.

There are a whole lot of false beliefs out there. Some are religious, some are not. Some are dangerous, some are not. The practical thing to do is to focus on those that are the most dangerous, not necessarily those that are the most religious.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Religion Poisons Everything?

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the way many atheists relate religion to good and bad actions.

When a theist does something bad, religion is to blame. "What do you expect? You give a person a desire to please god and a belief that god is pleased by a suicide bombing or killing apostates or some other horrendous act, and they go out and kill people. Religion poisons everything. "

When a theist does something good, this is because of our inherent good nature. Evolution has disposed us towards fairness and charity. Giving people a desire to please god and telling them that fairness and charity please god, while brutality and injustice do not, has absolutely no effect on the disposition to be kind and just."

This inconsistency not only reflects an intellectual fault, but a moral failing. This is prejudice - a disposition to prejudge theists as bad because they are theists and give them no credit for goodness, not unlike the same types of attitudes we see in some towards other population subgroups.

Consistency would see both good and evil potentially motivated either by religion or our nature.

I go with the view that dispositions towards good and evil can be found in our nature. This, of course, creates problems for the popular thesis that we can answer the question, "What is good?" by looking at our nature. It also creates problems for those who claim to have proved that nature provides us a disposition to do good - who cannot, at the same time, give us a theory of "good" that our nature is supposed to be disposing us towards.

Religion is not to blame. No god was involved in the writing of scripture. Its contents and its interpretation do not come from an external divine source that we can blame for all of our problems. Religion comes from human beings and, actually, does a good job of reporting our nature. It tells us of the moral character of the people who wrote it - real human beings with human flaws that some people today treat as "all knowing" and "perfectly virtuous". Its interpretation tell us more about the person reading scripture than it does about the scripture itself.

There is no evil written into scripture that cannot also be written into an atheistic philosophy. Human beings who can write these evils into a religion can also write them into an atheist philosophy. Saying that "religion poisons everything" simply ignores the fact that the real fault - where religion is at fault - comes from the people who invented it and follow it. Those who can invent and follow a vile religious practice can invent and follow practices that do not mention a god.

We can see an example of this in Sam Harris' defense of torture.

We see evidence of this in Ayn Rand Objectivism, Communism, multiculturalism, social Darwinism, and other atheist philosophies.

Steven Weinberg said:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This is unvarnished bigotry, plain and simple. Atheists, too, can embrace philosophies with twisted concepts of what is right and wrong. When they do, then the charge mentioned above is just as applicable to that atheist as it is to any theists.

However, this fact does not appeal to those people who want the emotional satisfaction of seeing "us" atheists as morally superior to "them" theists. Weinberg's quote sooths our tribal prejudices - so it is embraced and promoted where it should be condemned.

Atheists have some work to do when it comes to morality. Converting people from theism to atheism simply is not sufficient.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Effective Altrusim

I have been looking into the movement known as “Effective Altruism” recently, particularly in the light of Peter Singer’s presentation at TED.

To a large extent, this is substantially consistent with my interests since high school. I wanted to make the world a better place. However, I had a question that needed answering, "What is 'better'?"

In the Civil War, many Confederate soldiers made a significant "contribution to charity" - sacrificing years of labor, their health, even their lives in defense of something that they felt had real value. Yet, what they defended, in fact, had little value.

The same can be said about the Kamikaze Pilot in World War II, and the suicide bombers. These are - at least in the minds of those who performed them - acts of charity.

We can apply this analysis to a number of political causes that people support. For example . . . abortion. Is the time and money donated to protecting a woman's wife to choose, or the right of the conceptus' to life, a "good thing"?

Is it the case that those who are fighting for handgun regulation making the world a better place? Or does that honor go to those who are fighting against that regulation? Capital punishment? Homosexuality? The balance between invasions of privacy versus security? Euthanasia? Protecting the environment?

Look at any political campaign . . . or all political campaigns. Billions of dollars and countless labor-hours are donated - charitably contributed - to advancing a political agenda. Those who do so think they are doing good. Yet, they are countered by people "charitably" donating billions of dollars and countless labor-hours on the other side.

How effective is this altruism?

In each of these areas, we have people spending countless labor hours and dollars on one side, versus those who spend countless labor hours and dollars on the other side. People on both sides think that they are making a valuable contribution - that they are being charitable. Yet, clearly, some of them are wrong.

From the very start I did not believe that I had the wisdom to be able to say with arrogant certainty that the side I selected was the right side, and those who disagreed with me are either co-conspirators with the forces of evil or manipulated dupes. Perhaps they were on the right side, and I was the manipulated dupe.

How can we know?

Here, then, is the first question of effective altruism.

How do you know when you are being altruistic?

Under the topic of "effective altruism", there is a lot of talk as to which causes are more effective than others. Indeed, the whole focus of the movement is to identify a cause as "effective" or "ineffective". Some causes, it is said within the movement, are 1000 times more effective than others.

Actually, I would argue that the difference is greater than that. Some causes are infinitely more effective than others, because some of the causes that people are contributing to are causes that do no good and positive harm.

So far, the "Effective Altriusm" movement seems to be substantially ignoring the question, "When am I doing good?"

In much of what I read, they make the assumption that "lives saved" is a good thing - and that no life is intrinsically more valuable than any other. Yet, what is the value of saving the life of a boy who grows up to be a lieutenant in the service of a war lord who spends that life going around raping, stealing, and killing from rival war bands and any innocent civilian seen as vulnerable? Are you doing good to save the life that will be spent devoted to beheading anybody who "insults" their god or violently attacking any woman who seeks an eduction? Does it do good to save a life that will be spent promoting ignorance and superstition and actually fighting the sound scientific understanding that provide the intellectual foundation for our ability to treat injuries, cure disease, and understand the workings of the environment in which we live?

While it is the case that all lives have the same intrinsic value (that, actually, being no intrinsic value since intrinsic value does not exist), it is not the case and never will be the case that all lives have equal extrinsic value. Saving a life is not enough. Directing those saved lives so that they are spent in the service of that which is actually good rather than that which is evil is an essential part of making one's altruism truly effective.

A part of the extrinsic value of a life is the resources consumed - increasing competition and scarcity. In places already suffering from shortages of food and clean water, is it the case that another 1000 lives added is such a good thing? Perhaps the best charity is not to be understood in terms of "lives saved" but "births foregone".

How can we know?

Even where we can know, how do we direct those lives being saved to good ends rather than evil? Effective altruism can't be limited to just knowing, "X is good", but - to truly count as effective - has to direct human activity towards that which is good. So, "How can we direct the lives saved to that which is good rather than that which is evil?"

If one wishes to talk about "effective altruism", these are questions not to be ignored.

When is a person doing good? How do we know? How do we direct "lives saved" to the doing of good rather than the doing of evil?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why you should not kill yourself and why we should try to stop you if you do try.

Yesterday, I wrote that if you want to talk a person off the ledge, you need to tie that action to current desires. Future desires do not work because future desires cannot reach back in time to influence current actions.

You can mention intrinsic values or displeasing god, but there had better be a present desire to do that which has intrinsic vale or aversion to displeasing god, or the augment will not work. When a person says, "If there is no intrinsic value or god to please, then life is not worth living," they are actually responding to a current desire to do that which has intrinsic value or pleases god - a desire learned through social forces, not one that occurs naturally. It is a desire that can be unlearned as an individual, instead, learns to find value in things that are real rather than things that are imaginary.

However, I did not actually tie suicide prevention to current desires.

I do not want to lie and make claims about intrinsic values or gods that do not exist. The question about whether to lie or "humor" a suicidal person with a belief in intrinsic values or a god is a legitimate question - but not the topic under discussion here.

To start, we all tend to have current concerns for fulfillment of our future desires. It is an important part of what keeps us alive. Show a person a button and say, "Pushing this button will cause you excruciating pain tomorrow lasting one hour." Few will push it. We live our lives considering the effects that our actions will have on our future selves.

This happens to be one current desire among many - often overridden by the weight of other current desires. These include the desire for sex (risking disease and, for some, the physical stress of pregnancy), for more food than is good for us, for things that thwart future desires. We put future desire fulfillment at risk by not saving for retirement and running up debts. Still, even if often outweighed, our interest in the fulfillment of our future desires is there, giving us motivating reason to act in ways that bring about future fulfillment.

We are also concerned about the future desire fulfillments of our friends, our children, and our friends' children.

This gives us reason to promote in others those desires that will contribute to our future desire fulfillment. Not only is it the case that we do care about the fulfillment of future desires, we should care - in the sense that people generally have many and strong reason to promote interests that fulfill rather than thwart future desires.

At this point, I want to bring up an important distinction that desirism recognizes. It is the distinction between desires TO fulfill future desires and desires THAT fulfill future desires. An aversion to activities that waste non-renewable resources is not the same as an aversion TO thwarting future desires. However, it is an aversion THAT prevents the thwarting of future desires - and one that people with a concern for preventing the thwarting of future desires have reason to promote.

The fact is, many suicides are irrational. The person incorrectly predicts whether future desires will be thwarted or fulfilled. They falsely conclude that current pain will extend into the indefinite future, thinking "Every future day will be as bad as today, and the only way to avoid that future pain is death."

This is often not true. The current pain itself is already working through the reward system to alter desires - creating and strengthening interest that avoid these pains and weakening or eliminating interests that contribute to them. In a few years, the pains will be diminished. Perhaps it will not disappear entirely. Perhaps, in some cases, it should not. However, it will diminish.

In other words, "It gets better."

This is not always the case. The 87 year old cancer patient who is either in excruciating pain or so heavily drugged she cannot think would not be irrational to conclude that her prospects for future desire fulfillment are slim. Similarly, we can imagine the case of a prisoner enduring day after day of torture rationally concluding that his prospects for future desire fulfillment are dim as well.

However, there are many cases in which these types of conditions are not met. For the person standing on the ledge, chances are good that it is true that, "Your calculations are mistaken. Your future is not as bleak as you think it is. You are incorrectly predicting sameness where, in reality, things will change. You will adapt. All you need is time. If you realized how wrong you are, you would not act this way."

Yet, this leaves open the question of whether we force this conclusion on people who disagree with us. We think it will get better. The person on the ledge disagrees.

Generally, the argument for liberty is that each agent is the most knowledgable and least corruptible individual regarding their own welfare. I have accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what I desire and how to obtain it. Furthermore, there is little or no chance that I will exploit the power I may have over my own life to advance interests other than my own. On the other hand, if somebody else is given authority to run my life, they will that authority to fulfill their desires, not mine. Even if it included an interest in my happiness and welfare, she would not have near the knowledge of what that is as I do.

Furthermore, I have many and strong reasons to promote in others an aversion to denying my freedom to act on that knowledge - and they have many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion within me. We do this through social institutions that promote a love of liberty and an aversion to slavery and tyranny.

This translates into an aversion to interfering with the liberty of the person on the ledge.

On the other hand, with respect to suicide among a certain class of people we are almost always dealing with people who are not the best judge of their future desire fulfillment - who have made incorrect inferences about the prospects of future pain. It is not unreasonable to conclude that a major support for liberty is missing. With drug users, alcoholics, and smokers, there is still an opportunity to teach them the error of their ways. With suicide, the only way to buy time is through force. We also have reason to worry about promoting such a casual indifference in another person's untimely death that people are not motivated to prevent those deaths. We have reason to want people to be motivated to prevent our untimely deaths, and they have reason to want us to be motivated to prevent their untimely death.

Here, I want to point out that one of the conclusions of desirism is that some moral questions allow for no easy answer. There are weighty matters to consider - and the only people clearly wrong are those who say that the answer is obvious.

If you are looking for a moral calculator where you can punch in the circumstances and easily draw out the moral right answer, desirism is not that theory.

Here, we weigh an aversion to interfering with liberty and an aversion to interactions with others without their consent against an aversion to the waste of a life and a need for time to convince somebody they are about to make what we can reliably know is a tragic mistake.

Ultimately, I would argue that suicide prevention offers an important exception to the provisions of liberty. It is a good thing to violate the liberty of a person considering suicide (with some exceptions for rational suicide). On the other hand, I would not argue that this is so obviously true that any who disagree must be indoctrinated into some idiocy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Talking Somebody Off a Ledge

I have been presented with the following scenario:

Imagine a healthy, intelligent, priveleged young guy with the entire life ahead of him. Say he becomes deeply depressed for some reason and wants to die. Let's also imagine that he is completely atheistic and believe in no intrinsic values or meaning. He has absolutely no desires, not even to get healthy (as this is often the nature of deep depressions). He's standing on the ledge of a building: why should he not jump and get out of the suffering if that's his only desire. If future and potential desires doesn't count, then why should we try to cure him?

My statement that future desires do not count is a descriptive claim that future desires do not reach back in time and influence present day actions - at least not directly. If you want to talk the person off of the ledge, you need link that action to a current desire or it just will not work.

The link you make may be to a current desire that future desires be fulfilled. We tend to have such desires. We tend to be strongly concerned that our future selves be happy - though this is one desire among many and easily outweighed by other present desires (smoking, drinking, failure to exercise, interests in sports as a spectator and in "reality" television). In fact, his motivation towards suicide may come from an (often irrational - but not always) belief that there can be no future happiness. People extrapolate current pain into the far future and see a future they would prefer to avoid. Still, it is the present desire (or aversion) motivating the action.

This is true, by the way, even if you talk about intrinsic values.

Desirism says that you can motivate an agent to act a particular way by giving a person a desire to do that which has intrinsic value, and a belief that X has intrinsic value. This will motivate an agent to realize X. However, his action is still only motivated by a current desire and channeled by current beliefs. We do not find in this any evidence that intrinsic values (any 'reason for action' other than desires) are real.

Correspondingly, you can send a child to church - where praise, condemnation, and other social tools are heavily used to promote a desire to please God. If you also convince him, "X displeases God" you will give him a motivating reason to avoid doing X. Yet, again, the actual actions are fully explained in terms of current beliefs and current desires. Nothing in this provides any actual evidence for the existence of a god or any type of reasons for action in the real world other than desires.

This account of religious motivation supports the claim that many theists make that, if you take away religious motivation, then some people will do wicked things. To the degree that a person has acquired an aversion to displeasing God and a belief that this "wicked thing" displeases God, then that person has a motivating reason with a weight equal to the strength of the aversion to refrain from doing those wicked things. If you remove this aversion - by convincing this person that nothing displeases God because there is no God to displease - then that person will lose some of his motivation to refrain from "wicked things".

It is true, as many atheists (such as myself) claim, that we could better use our social tools to give people an aversion to doing "wicked things" (rather than the more complicated aversion to displeasing god and a belief that "wicked things" displease god), standard practice for many people still takes the second route. Consequently, when people worry, "If you take away a belief in God, you will take away motivation to do good and refrain from evil" is almost certainly true.

However, this common course of action has many pitfalls. For one thing, it tends to use archaic ideas about what counts as "wicked things" from primitive and substantially uninformed people. It is foolish at best to take the word of prehistoric, superstitious, and all-too-human tribesmen as the unerring truth of an all-knowing and perfectly virtuous diety. Yet, this foolishness is practiced and on a global scale. With it, there are a lot of cases in which people are being convinced to do wicked things by giving them a desire to please God with belief that the ideas of these primitive tribesmen - killing homosexuals, killing whole populations of innocent civilians, denying life-saving medical care to a child - pleases God.

This, in turn, highlights a gross inconsistency in a lot of atheist thinking that runs through a great many atheist discussions - proving that the abandonment of reason is not confined to the religious. Many are all too eager to blame religion as the motivating reason why somebody did something evil. Yet, they deny that religion motivates people to do anything good - they credit good to "other sources" (e.g., our biological nature).

There is absolutely no reason to hold to his asymmetry, other than "tribal" reasons of wanting to look at the world in terms of "us -good/them-bad".

However, there is no sense to the idea that these are not symmetric. If religion can motivate evil, it can motivate good. If religion cannot be a force for good, then it cannot be a force for evil. I hold that the first one is correct.

If a person is given a desire to please God, and a belief that charity pleases God, they can be given additional motivation to be charitable. This is true in the same way that if a person is given a desire to please God, and a belief that blowing up a bus or punishing gays pleases God can be motivated to blow up a bus or punish gays. There is absolutely no sense to claiming that the second type of item happens all the time and the first never happens.

All of this ties to the same point. Whether you like this fact or not, if you want to motivate a current action - such as talking a person off a ledge - you must link that action to current desires. You can talk about future desires, but there had better be a present desire that future desires be fulfilled. You an talk about intrinsic value, but there had better be a desire to do that which is intrinsically good (and this still will not make it true that something is intrinsically good). You can talk about what pleases or displeases god, but there had better be a desire to please god - and it still will not make it true that anything pleases or displeases god.

The same applies to trying to "cure" people of depression. The reasons to do so will need to be found in present desires. Like it or not, nothing else will work.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Procreation and Reasons for Action that Exist

If desires is the thing that tells us what is morally right / wrong, doesn't that impose upon us to procreate as much as possible? So that we have more entities that can form desires and fulfill them?


Desires tell us what has value. That is to say, a desire for something (a desire that P) is a motivating reason for the person having that desire – and only that person, not anybody else – to act in ways to realize states of affairs that makes real what is desired.

The phrase that I use to report this is that a desire that P provides an agent with a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S in which P is true.

Among other things, this means that a future person's desire is a motivating reason for that future person to realize that which the future person desires (where possible). However, no person's desire is - directly - a motivating reason for any other person to act in a particular way. Desires are motivating reasons for people to alter the desires of others. However, future people have no way to act so as to change our desires, unless they invent some real cool technology.

Using these principles, let us evaluate a state of affairs S that would exist if we "procreate as much as possible."

What reasons for action do we have to create such a state? What desires of ours are fulfilled by procreating as much as possible?

Note that a desire for sex is not a desire to procreate – and that there are many ways in which the former desire can be fulfilled where the latter effect is avoided.

Of course, procreation creates a person with a desire that P and – in many cases – a state of affairs in which P is true. Who cares? Yes, desires determine value. Our desires determine what has value to us. To demonstrate how procreating as much as possible has value to us, one needs to show which (if any) of our desires are fulfilled in a state of affairs created by procreating as much as possible. I do not think that very many can be found. I think we have few reasons to procreate as much as possible, and many and strong reasons not to.

An objection can be raised here that I have failed to respect the distinction between what we do desire (the reasons for action that we have) and what we should desire (the reasons for action that we should have). Moral value is not a question of what we desire. It is a question of what we should desire. It may be the case that we have few desires that would be fulfilled by procreating as much as possible. However, we should have those desires.

Desirism holds that what we should desire asks about the desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. To say that people should desire X is to say that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote in others a desire that X. To say that we should have desires that result in as much procreation as possible is to say that we have many and strong reason to promote desires that result in as much procreation as possible.

I have mentioned that a person with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true. One of the ways in which this person can accomplish this end is by motivating others to act in ways that realize states of affairs in which P is true (or, at least, not act in ways that will realize states of affairs in which P is false). That is to say, the agent has reason to use the social tools of reward (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) to promote in others those desires that contribute to the realization of P.

At the same time, others have reason to promote in the agent those desires that contribute to the realization of what they desire.

As it turns out, there are some desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. Desires to help others, to keep promises, to tell the truth, to refrain from reacting to another person's words with violence, and the like. There is a fact of the matter concerning desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote - and to work with each other to identify these desires and promote them through community rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation). It is not merely a matter of personal opinion. It is not a matter of individual personal taste.

To claim that we ought to procreate as much as possible is to say that we have many and strong reasons to promote those desires that would motivate us to procreate as much as possible.

But do we?

I do not see very many and strong reasons to do this. We have reasons to procreate some. There is a natural desire to do so. It also provides a way to have healthy and productive members in the community to take care of those less able to take care of themselves - and the vast majority of us will need (and thus have a reason to promote desires contributing to) such a community. Some people see a continuing of the self - a kind of immortality - in procreation. These are reasons to promote an interest in having some children, but not reasons for unlimited procreation.

In order to get to the conclusion that we must procreate as much as possible, we must postulate a different kind of reason for action. We have to assume that there is a reason for action intrinsic to the state in which a creature with a "desire that P" exists in a state where P is true. This independent reason for action somehow beckons to us - prompting us to act in the ways that it demands even though we have no desire or interest in doing so. That is to say, it is independent of the reasons for action we have.

We can ignore these types of reasons for action - reasons to procreate as much as possible or to promote desires that would result in as much procreation as possible - because they are not reasons for action that exist.

Desirism does not support - let alone require - the conclusion that we should procreate as much as possible because it does not support the thesis that reasons such as this actually exist. There is no "intrinsic value" providing a reason independent of the reasons for action we have to procreate as much as possible. Our desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and they provide the sole reasons to use social tools such as reward (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) to promote the desires we "should have".

We could have reasons to procreate as much as possible - it is not absolutely ruled out by desirism. Yet, it is not automatically ruled in either. Given the reasons for action that we have, it seems highly unlikely that we have reasons to procreate as much as possible or to promote those desires that would motivate us to procreate as much as possible.

The answer to the question is . . . "no".

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

On Having a Purpose

Another question from the studio audience.

Given the premise that determinism is correct, how can you say that the universe has no purpose? The universe is exactly as it had to be given it's deterministic evolution and consequentially the purpose was to give rise to living entities like you and me. . . . So in other words the purpose of the universe is to give rise to meaning creating entities which then gives rise to emergent REAL meaning and morality.

It does not follow from the fact that something has a particular effect that it has a purpose.

One of the effects of oxygen in the atmosphere is to cause iron to rust. But that is not the purpose of oxygen.

Some people get cancer. However, it is not their purpose to get cancer. It is just something that happens to them.

Consequently, the universe may have been determined to give rise to living entities. However, this does not imply that it was the
purpose of the universe to do so. It is just something that happened.

To have a purpose is to have an intended use. To have an intended use requires postulating an intender - a being with ends (desires) for the obtainment of which the object is useful.

Hammers have a purpose - to drive in nails. Cars have a purpose - to provide for the transportation of people and things.

Of course, having a purpose does not imply that something cannot have other uses. A car can be used as a shield to hide behind when a protest turns violent. A hammer can be used as a paperweight.

In all cases, to speak of something having a purpose is to speak of it being a useful tool. One must postulate a creature with desires that can put the tool to use.

If the universe has "a purpose" at all it is to give us light and materials with which to sustain life and fulfill our other desires. Our desires - and perhaps the desires of extraterrestrial aliens - provide for the only purpose that exists.

In light of this fact, the complaint that one's life lacks purpose is odd at best. It is a complaint that one is not being used as a mere tool by some other being.

Of all people, slaves are in the best position to claim that their life has a purpose. Their purpose it to pick cotton, or to fulfill the sexual desires of their owner, or to bring money to the owner when they are raised and sold - like cattle. Yet, a state of slavery hardly seems to be a state to yearn for. Even enslavement to a god.

An ironic fact about enthralling oneself to a being that does not exist is that one does not actually become God's property. One becomes the property of those who claim to be relaying God's desires. Because, in fact, they are not reporting God's desires - they are reporting their own desires. It should be no surprise that those desires include blind and unquestioned obedience - servitude - thus finding "purpose" to life in the sense used here. "You can find meaning and purpose to your life in being my servent . . . um . . . I mean . . . God's servant."

Alternatively, somebody can market a "purpose" to life, not in service to a god, but in service to the state or the government. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia also "sell" purpose and meaning to others through servitude. Yet, the individual accepting servitude to "the state" is - more than anything - merely a servant of those who claim to represent "the state".

One can argue that it is not slavery to voluntarily accept a status of servitude. However, that misses the point. The slave is still the person whose life has the greatest purpose because the slave is the person most like a tool to be used towards the fulfillment of desires not his or her own. The slave has a purpose, in the same way that the hammer or blow-up doll has a purpose.

In summary, the universe has no purpose except in the fact that we find pieces of it useful. A life can have purpose when that life is enslaved - voluntarily or voluntarily - by another. But a state of slavery is hardly a state to be yearned for. For those who have been taught to yearn for a state of servitude, it is relevant to note that nobody has ever served God - because there is no God to serve. Those lives tend to be spent in service to people who claim to speak for God. They may well value being surrounded by people seeking meaning and purpose through servitude, but those are not serving who they think they are serving.

My life has no purpose. My life is one of the things that exist that assigns purpose to other things - hammers, governments, laws, information, art, friendship, love, the universe. But not other people. I do not wish to be made a mere tool for the service of others, and seek that they not regard me as a mere tool for their own use. In return, I offer the same thing of them. They are not mere tools. They are beings with ends - ends that also assign purpose and meaning to things.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Using People

I have been provided with another set of questions to answer regarding desirism. I will start with this one:

A guy drugs a girl. She passes out. He rapes her in her sleep because he desired to. She is passed out during the entire ordeal and wake up without ever knowing about it. In other words she suffered no trauma. Was what he did still wrong? He got his desire fuifilled while she was in a state of no desires, so if desirism is correct, did anything immoral occur here?

This represents the most common misinterpretation of desirism – one that I suspect will persist for a long time. It confuses desirism with a related but significantly different theory best identified as “desire fulfillment act utilitarianism”.

This alternative theory holds that desire fulfillment is the only thing that has value, and that the right act is the act that maximizes desire fulfillment. Desirism holds a different view of right acts – the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. Within desirism, moral praise and blame are attached to the desires that motivated an action, depending on whether those desires are those that people generally have reason to promote or discourage.

Desire-fulfillment act utilitarian theories have the same problems that all act-utilitarian theories have. One of the biggest problems is that they assume beings whose motivation is solely associated with the “good” that the act utilitarian theory proposes?

Why did this guy drug and have sex with the girl? It could not be because he had a desire to maximize desire fulfillment. A person with this desire has no interest in sex. If he engages in sex at all it is only as a tool – an instrument – for maximizing desire fulfillment. He has no aversion to pain, to food preferences, no friends – because friendship motivates a person to weigh the desires of friends above those of non-friends. He has no likes or dislikes other than “desire maximization”.

If he has any like at all – any preference other than a preference for maximizing desire fulfillment – then there will be circumstances in which this second desire are going to outweigh the first desire and result in the agent sacrificing the first good for the second. Under circumstances where a person likes chocolate ice cream, there are circumstances where this like will “tilt the balance” in what is otherwise a close call, motivating the agent to make a choice that he would not have made in the absence of a preference for chocolate. If his only other desire is for maximum desire fulfillment, then a love of chocolate will motivate him in some circumstances to sacrifice maximum desire fulfillment for a lesser option that includes him eating chocolate.

In the real world, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to having sex with somebody without their consent. We have reason to condemn those who use others without consent – in fact, we have reason to bring to bear some of the harshest condemnation available, including physical punishment. This is what it takes to make having sex with somebody without consent “wrong”. It has to be something motivated by desires that people generally have reason to stomp out – or by the absence of desires that people have reason to promote. In this case, the aversion to having sex without consent is absent, and that makes the agent a legitimate target for condemnation.

The question, then, “did anything wrong happen?” asks if people generally have any reason to condemn the types of desires that would motivate such an act. In this case, they most certainly do. The fears of unwanted pregnancy or disease . . . the reasons people have not to be surrounded by others who think of them as mere things to be used . . . these all provide many and strong reasons for the most serious objections.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. They are the only things that give other things value. However, in giving value to things, they also give value to other desires. They give a very high value to the aversion to treating others as mere things and, in particular, to an aversion to having sex with somebody without consent. It is a value that is realized by using moral condemnation against those who demonstrate that they lack a proper respect for the consideration of others and a willingness to treat them as mere objects.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Population Ethics: Bringing More People Into the World

Last week, I posted several articles on population ethics - the question of "How many people should there be?"

Before moving on, I want to post an article that addresses this question more directly. It does not give an answer, but it gives directions for finding an answer that works better than the traditional approach.

That traditional approach is based on a false absumption that, in turn, leads to absurd results. The false assumption is that value exists as an intrinsic property with an assignable value, and that morality demands that we make this intrinsic value as big as possible. Applied to population ethics, it says that a life with fulfilled desires has intrinsic value, and we need to maximize the lives that are worth living. This, in turn, leads to what philosophers call the "repugnant conclusion." We should create the maximum number of barely tolerable lives because a small number of large values (higher quality lives) will, at some point, inevitably be exceeded by a sufficiently large number of very small values. That is, unless the large values can grow to infinity. In this case, the idea that the quality of life can approach infinity seems false.

As Derik Parfit wrote:

For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

This argument requires the assumption that each life us assigned an intrinsic value independent of interests or desires (though the intrinsic value of a life at depend on how many of the person's desires are fulfilled). Or job - our moral duty - is to make this number as big as possible.

Desirism rejects that model.

It asks a different question. "What reasons for action do we have to bring additional people into the world?"

Where populations are small, additional people contribute to the greater fulfillment of desires. Those who exist in such a world have many and strong reasons to promote interests that increase the population.

To see this, imagine one person living utterly alone, and the benefits of adding just one more person. Where there are two, add a third. Each new person provides significant improvements to everybody's quality of life. Yet, in all but extreme circumstances such as on a lifeboat, they place little additional strain on available resources.

However, at some point adding new people produces less of a benefit; the law of diminishing returns applies. Additional people compete for resources - driving up prices or contributing to scarcity. Yet, the diminishing returns of this additional person is quite small. At some point, people have more and stronger reasons to promote interests that maintain this population - that motivate people to pursue options other than bringing more people into the world.

Note that a tribe living on a small island or a small oasis in a hostile desert will reach this point sooner than a global community capable of efficient global trade.

I would like to stress that what desirism suggests to look at is is not interests TO bring more or fewer people into the world but interests THAT bring more or fewer people into the world. What reason do we have to encourage women to become interested in science, medicine, politics, consulting, and ends that would be thwarted by having children, thus motivating them not to select that option? What reasons do we have to promote interests in non-procreative sex over procreative sex - such as is provided through the use of birth control?

Where bringing more people into the world thwarts more and stronger of our desires, where we have reason to avoid greater competition for scarce goods and services, we have more and stronger reason to promote alternative interests.

It is arguably the case that we have passed this point. The next billion people will put heavy demands on the environment and resources such as food, clean water, and energy. Yet, they will not likely contribute more than the current seven billion people can contribute. We have passed the point where we have reason to promote interests in having more children.

Should we be having more people? The answer is found by looking at the reasons for action that exist for promoting interests that will increase the population over promoting interests that will maintain or reduce it.

I think it is important that desirism, unlike the traditional model, matches the way that population ethics is actually discussed by people who are concerned with population policy. The traditional view has created a great deal of philosophical literature. Yet, to the public at large, this is "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" philosophy. Some people find it interesting to try to anwer it, but it yields no substantive and useful conclusions.

Desirism, on the other hand, focuses attention on the very types of issues that people interested in population policy are interested in. Specifically, how much strain will additional people put on the environment, and on resources such as water, land, and energy? What are the possibilities that population pressures will lead to conflict? At the same time, what are the chances that an increased population can take advantages of economies of scale and specialization and trade to produce an overall increase in the standard of living?

The "repugnant conclusion" - and all arguments in that family - should be taken as reductio-ad-absurdum arguments against the idea that there are intrinsic values in the world to be maximized. If a set of premises leads to an absurd conclusion, it is time to question those premises. In this case, it is time to discard the belief that lives have intrinsic value.

Value is real - but it is not an intrinsic value. It is a relational value. A true value claim relates a state of affairs to a set of desires. Desires provide the only real-world reason for action.

To determine whether we should bring more people into the world, we need to be asking, "What reasons for action do we have for promoting interests that increase the number of people, and what reasons for action do we have for promoting interests that would lower this number?"

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Nonidentity Problem

There is a problem in the philosophy of morality called The Nonidentity Problem. A member of the studio audience, Evan Dawson-Baglien, asked that I discuss it in the context of future desires. that a member of the studio audience put as follows:

The Nonidentity Problem postulates a woman who is considering becoming pregnant, but has some sort of temporary illness that somehow injures a baby in utero so that its life would be more difficult (but not so horrible that it would prefer to have never been born). The question is; would it be morally good for the woman to wait until she recovers from the illness before becoming pregnant?

Our moral intuitions, as this commenter states, seems to be that the mother should wait and conceive a healthier baby after she recovers from her illness. She has done something wrong if she does not do so.

However, one cannot argue that she harms or in anyway wrongs the baby she does not have by waiting. She would be saying, "You - the near-term baby with the less satisfying life. You're out of here. A different person with a happier life, you're in." Unless that baby suffers so badly that death would be preferable (and we are assuming it is not the case), she is better off alive than dead, and is still being given the best life she could possibly have.

If it were the same child - if her choice would be to refrain from taking alcohol and have a healthy child or to take alcohol and have a sickly child - we say she harms the child that exists. However, since - in the case we imagine, a particular child is not being made sick. Rather, a sickly child is being replaced - in a sense - by a healthier future child.

The commenter also suggested a potential answer to come from desirism.

2. Most people would feel sorry for the injured baby and feel a desire to help it. They have good reason to praise and condemn the woman for her actions.

The first part of this suggestion is accurate, but incomplete.

People have more than just sympathy and a desire to help at stake. They have many other strong reasons to promote in others a preference for healthy children over sickly children.

Imagine a small, primative community - a small family tribe - faced with this same question. A fertile woman in this tribe knows that getting pregnant during "the sickness season" tends to result in sickly children. The tribe has lived through the sickness season enough times to learn this relationship. If she puts off pregnancy until the sickness season is over, she has a better chance of having a healthier child.

We can more easily see in this case the reasons that exist in this tribe for preferring a healthy child over a sickly child. It is not just that tribe members will feel sorry for the child and want to help. It is also the case that a healthy child can make more of a contribution to the community - helping to fulfill desires for food, shelter, transportation, and caring for others who are sick or injured or getting old.

It is still true today that we have many and strong reasons to promote interests that will result in productive contributors to society than interests that produce needy dependant people. We have many and strong reasons to condemn the woman who would choose a sickly child now over a healthy child later.

This, by the way, suggests that there are reasons for establishing preferences that put off procreative sex until one has established a home environment best suited to raising children who will be net contributors to society (i.e., after marriage). Condemning the people who conceive a child they are not ready to care for follows the same reasoning as condemning people who conceive a child during "the sickness season" rather than waiting for the sickness season to pass.

In the original comment, Evan Dawson-Baglien then wrote:

This sounds workable at first, but it implies that if the woman was alone on another planet or something she would have done nothing wrong.

Actipually, it does not have that implication.

It implies that, in a world where the woman is alone, there are no reasons for action that exist on that world to condemn her actions. If desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and the woman is the only being with desires, then it follows that the only reasons for action that exist belong to the woman. Furthermore, ex hypothesi, her reasons for having a sickly child now outweigh her reasons for having a healthy child later.

We want to condemn that choice. One way to do so is to postulate that there is some reason for action that exists to be found in the "healthy child later" - a type of reason that exists independent of desire. However, what is this alternative reason for action? How does it work? How do we find out about it?

There is a better explanation for what is going on that does not require inventing these mysterious desire-independent "reasons for action that exist".

When we use the words "permissible" and "wrong", we are speaking in this world - in the here and now. The woman may be alone on the planet. However, we, here, on present-day earth, surrounded by billions of other people, are not on that planet with her. And the people we are talking to are other humans in the here and now as well.

One of the major uses of moral language is to mold the desires of those around us. To say that something is wrong is not only to report that people have many and strong reasons to condemn it. The phrase itself carries that condemnation that it says people are justified in delivering. To say that something is wrong is to say that those who have an attitude of condemnation and aversion towards that state are better people than those who are indifferent to or like such a state.

To say that the woman has done nothing wrong is to tell other people on this world to have and to promote a general attitude of indifference to what she has done.

However, we now need to ask, "What reasons for action do we have for promoting this attitude of indifference in the here and now?" That attitude of indifference will likely likely make similar behavior more common in this world. We actually have many and strong reasons to prevent that. We have many and strong reasons to reject the claim that there is "nothing wrong" with the woman's choice of having a sickly child now, even on a world where she is alone.

To state it directly, the claim that she "has done nothing wrong" is false. That statements means that the people of this world - here and now - the audience to whom the speaker of that statement is speaking - should have an attitude of indifference towards her actions. That is simply not true. Instead, we have any and strong reasons to promote an aversion to the woman's choice - to praise those who have such an aversion and to condemn those who do not - among fellow humans in the here and now. The statement that accurately makes that claim is the statement that that the choice she makes is wrong.

Again, this is consistent with saying that there is no reason for action that exists in her world for making a different choice. It happens to be true that no reason for action exists on her world for making a different choice. However, that does not imply that the people of this world would benefit from an attitude of indifference - which is what we would be saying if we said "she did nothing wrong".

The woman making the decision may be alone on her own world. However, we, who are judging her, did not follow her there. We are still here, surrounded by people whose desires and aversions have an impact on whether our current desires will be fulfilled or thwarted. Telling people to be indifferent towards the woman's choice creates attitudes in the here and now that puts the fulfillment of our desires in this world at risk. Consequently, we tell people - what is in fact true - to have an aversion to the option of having a sickly child over a healthy child. We do this by saying that she did, in fact, do something wrong

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Future Desires Do Not Count

Future desires do not count.

This is not to say that future desires do not matter. They matter to some people. In fact, they happen to matter to many of us.

When I say that future desires do not count, this is to be taken as reporting the real-world fact that a future desire is not a reason for action that exists. It is a reason for action that will exist - or not, depending on the choices we make. However, it is not a reason for action that exists at the time that an action is decided upon.

You, the reader, may want future desires to count. You may think that future people are people - or will be people - and their interests are as important as ours. You may want your fellow humans to act in ways that fulfill, rather than thwart, their future desires.

That "want" you have, if this is true, is a present desire. That "want" is a reason for action that exists. However, in the absence of such a want, future desires are impotent and irrelevant with respect to current action.

If you want people today to behave differently, in a way that fulfills rather than thwarts future desires, you must either find a current reason for action that exists, or create a current reason for action (desire) that will fulfill future desires.

To create a current reason for action that exists itself requires a current reason to act. It requires a current desire that give a person today reason to use social tools such as reward (which includes praise) and punishment (including condemnation) to mold the desires of others in ways that fulfill rather than thwart future desires. Whether the topic is climate change, overpopulation, or government deficits, one must find the reason to change in current reasons for action that exist.

As it turns out, people tend to have - and they have many and strong reasons to promote in others - a consideration of future desires.

We have the fulfillment of our own future desires to consider. However, even though we tend to have an interest in the fulfillment of our own future desires, it is one current desire among many. It often gets outweighed by other current desires. Thus, people eat what they should not, drink what they should not, enage in sexual behaviors that thwart future desires, choise entertainment over education, and generally sacrifice even their own future interests for the sake of current satisfaction.

Even here, our own future desires do not count in the absence of present desires that tend to fulfill future desires. The future desires alone will do no good.

In terms of an interest in fulfilling future desires, there are also those with children, who care about the fulfillment of their children's desires, who know that their children will be concerned with the interests of ther own children, and so on. Those who do not have children are friends with those who do. People generally have reason to promote an overall interest in the world those children will live in.

In all of these cases, we are talking about present desires that future desires be fulfilled. There is simply no sense to the claim that a future desire has any pull over present action by itself - in the absence of advocacy or mediation by a present desire that the future desire be fulfilled.

This post can mostly be taken as an instruction to those who do wish to see future desires fulfilled. Do you want people today to behave differently with respect to the fulfillment r thwarting of future desires? Then find or create (using reward and punshment) the reasons for action in the present. When somebody asks, "Why should I act differently?", if you do not give an answer in terms of a reason for action that exists (or create such a reason), it is a mistake to expect the answer given to have much of a real-world effect.

That's reality.

To tie this into the possible worlds questions we have been examining, one could say about a current action, "It will bring a person into the world whose desires will be largely fulfilled."

The respose is, "So? What current reason for action do I have for bringing a future person into existence whose desires will be largely fulfilled? You must relate that future state to a current reason for action that exists."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Value of More Possible Worlds

As a follow up to my last post, I gave been asked to compare another pair of possible worlds.

[B]etween the following [pair] of worlds, which would desirism recommend ("neutral" or "toss a coin" is also an option)?

(A-life = almost all desires fulfilled...)

* World_7: one A-lives
* World_8: zero lives

[Suppose] I have a weak desire to go for World_8 instead of World_7. Is it okay to go for World_8 then?

Once more, my answer is that there is not enough information to answer this question.

I also need to know the answer to the question, "Are you the only being that exists? Are you currently the only creature with desires and, thus, the only being that has reason to prefer one option over the other?"

If the answer is yes then, ex hypothesi, there is more and stronger reason to choose World_8 over World_7 and little or no reason to object. We are told to assume that you do not care enough about whether an A-life exists. Furthermore, given the answer to this second question, there is nobody around who has a reason to object to - to bring praise and condemnation to bear on - the fact that your preferences are for World_8.

Consequently, it is "okay" in a sense to go for World_8. There are more and stronger reasons to do so, and nobody has a reason to object.

But let us assume, instead, that you are asking as a human on Planet Earth surrounded by 7 billion other humans with common human interests.

As a matter of fact, most humans have many and strong reasons to promote in others a preference for the continuation of life.

We don't have much reason to train others to choose between World_7 and World_8. In fact, we do not expect the option to come up, and certainly will have little opportunity to condemn the person who makes the "wrong choice". However, people will have many opportunities to choose between a life continuing and a life ending. We have reason to care which option they prefer - particularly when they are making choices that affect the continuation of our own life or the lives of those we care about. We have reason to bring praise and condemnation to bear to mold preferences - to promote an interest in a world where a particular A-life exists over one in which no life exists.

That is to say, we have reason to condemn those who would choose World_8 over World_7. Real-world humans who would opt for World_8 give us reason to worry. We have reason to worry about the likelihood that they would have a preference for a world in which we or those we care about did not exist. We have reasons to praise and express a preference for those who would choose World_7 over those who would choose World_8 simply because we have to live with these people.

In making this judgement, people have an unfortunate and misguided tendency to explain the reasons for choosing World_7 in terms of its intrinsic value. Yet, nobody has ever been able to answer questions about this value such as "Where does it come from?" or "How does it work?" or "How do we acquire knowledge of it?"

In fact, World_7 has no intrinsic merit. Intrinsic value does not exist.

What does exist are the reasons for action that people have to promote an environment in which they are surrounded by others who prefer World_7 over World_8. We promote this world by promoting an aversion to those with an expressed preference for World_8, and by telling them that they ought to choose - that a good person would choose - World_7.

Desirism holds that moral statements themselves carry the emotional component of praise or condemnation that their factual component says that people have reason to deliver. To say to a human on Earth, "It is okay to choose World_8" would be to say, "It is okay for you, as a human on Earth, to be indifferent as to whether life continues or not." However, this is decidedly NOT true.

This means that it is decidedly NOT okay for an earthling surrounded by 7 billion other earthlings to have a preference for World_8 over World_7 - let alone actually choose (or be so constituted that one would choose) World_8 over World_7 if the option ever came up.

Yet, it remains true that if the universe were to be stripped of all beings but one, that one being has a preference for World_8, and he were to ask, "Is there sufficient reason for me to choose World_7 instead?" the answer - given the assumptions we are provided - is "No, not really."

What about that future being's desires. Do they count? Are they not reasons to choose World_7?

I will answer that question tomorrow. But the answer is - they cannot count - at least not directly and in themselves.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Value of Possible Worlds

As a follow up to yesterday’s post, I have been asked

[B]etween the following [pair] of worlds, which would desirism recommend ("neutral" or "toss a coin" is also an option)?
(A-life = almost all desires fulfilled; B-life = hardly any desires fulfilled)

• World_1: one billion B-lives, three billion A-lives
• World_2: one billion B-lives, six billion A-lives

Desirism cannot answer the question because an important piece of information has been left out.

Who are you asking?

Let's ask the people of World_1. "Assume you had the capacity to decide today which world will exist tomorrow. Your world, pretty much as it is now. Or a different world made up one billion B-lives, six billion A-lives?"

I bet you would have a hard time coming up with any argument providing the population of World_1 with any type of motivating reason to choose World_2. There might be some in the population who would say, "I'll give up my life so that more people can live happy lives." Yet, they would be few and far between. For the most part, they would choose World_1. They have more and stronger reasons to choose World_1. They would not be neutral, nor would they be inclined to toss a coin. "World_1" would be their choice.

Correspondingly, if you ask the population of World_2, they would almost certainly choose World_2. The question would be like asking the population of World_2 if they have many and strong reason to have 3 billion people with A-lives disappear overnight. Again, it seems most likely that the population of World_2 have many and strong reasons to prevent such an event. They, too, would not answer with a shrug, nor would they choose to flip a coin. "World_2" would be their answer.

You can ask which world an impartial observer would prefer. However, if he was truly impartial, he would be neutral as to which world exists. In order to get this observer to make a choice, the observer has to have some interests or "partialities" on which to base that decision. His decision will be grounded on those partialities.

If the observer has a desire that 4 billion people exists, then the observer would choose World_1. If the observer desires that 7 billion people exists, it will choose World_2. If the observer only cares that people exist and does not care how many, this observer would likely choose "flip a coin" assuming that the coin flip was a precipitating event that would bring the winning world into existence from nothing.

The idea that there is a right answer independent of the question, "Who do you ask?" is a false assumption.

Asking this question is very much like asking, "Which is closest; Baghdad or Osaka?"

Closest . . . to what?

Closest to Tokyo? Closest to Tehran?

Until you give me a reference point, I cannot answer the question. However, after you give me a reference point, there is an objective right answer to that question. It is simply not the same answer as you would get if you selected a different reference point.

In fact, the reason why people who ask questions like, "Which world is better" without talking about a reference point never find an answer that they like is precisely because it is like asking the question, "Which is closest" without answering the question, "Closest to what?" There simply is no answer to that question.

This analogy can goes even further.

Note that, when we talk about location, there is no privileged reference point. There is no one right reference point that reference questions must refer to. "Tokyo" is not in any absolute way a more correct reference point than "Tehran".

However, in spite of this fact nobody argues that statements about location are subjective, or that location represents an area of knowledge outside of science. Instead, we build into our scientific and objective understanding of location that we can only talk about location relative to something else and that there is no intrinsically privileged or correct reference point.

The same is true about questions of value. Questions of value need a reference point. No reference point is privileged. However, given a reference point (a set of desires), now we can talk about the value of states of affairs as they stand in relation to that reference point.

The objection is sometimes raised that I give a special status to the reference point "people generally". I hold that moral claims are ultimately claims about malleable desires that "people generally" have the most and strongest reason to promote using rewards (such as praise) and condemnation (such as punishment).

However, the only fact I note about these desires is that they are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. I do not draw any implications that are not sound implications that follow from this fact alone. The only privilege I give these malleable desires is the privilege that they draw from being, in fact, desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

On Population Ethics

I have been asked the following question from the studio audience.

What's your view on it? Should we maximize fulfilled desires in the world; fulfilled desires minus unfulfilled ones; or should we minimize the number of unfulfilled ones? This population-ethical question has vast implications for many real-world questions.

Answer: None of the above.

This set of options is based on a false set of assumptions. They assume either that desire fulfillment is the only thing that is intrinsically good (thus, is to be maximized), desire unfulfillment is the only thing that is intrinsically bad and the only thing that is intrinsically bad (thus, is to be minimized), or both.

Desirism holds that nothing has intrinsic value – not even desire fulfillment itself. A person with an aversion to pain does not need another aversion that the aversion to pain be fulfilled. The aversion to pain (the desire that “I not be in a state of pain”) all by itself is sufficient to motivate the agent to avoid states in which “I am in a state of pain” is true. What matters in this simple case is not “desire fulfillment” or “the reduction in desire thwarting”. What matters for the agent is “I am not in a state of pain” – and that’s as far as we can go.

Admittedly, the habit of looking for one intrinsic good to be maximized has a long history in moral philosophy. With Bentham it was pleasure and the freedom from pain. With Mill it was happiness. With Peter Singer it is preference satisfaction. Because of this tradition, many people interpret desirism as a theory that says to take desire fulfillment and maximize it.

However, this is not a correct interpretation. Desirism does not hold that desire fulfillment has some sort of special value property that warrants its maximization. It is simply a term used to describe the implications of the fact that a person with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true. A person with an aversion to pain has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which, “I am not in pain” is true.

End of story.

Well, another part of the story is that a person with an aversion to pain has a motivating reason to mold the desires of others – using rewards (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) – so that they are less likely to bring about states of affairs in which “I am in a state of pain” is true. And it is possible to look upon a whole population and see that people generally have many and strong reasons to use these tools to broadly mold the desires of people to make pain-causing behavior less common. For example, they have reason to praise those whose behavior makes it less likely that others are in pain and to condemn those whose behavior makes it more likely others are in pain.

However, please note, I still have not made any mention of “maximizing desire fulfillment” or “minimizing desire non-fulfillment.” I have only talked about people using social tools to mold malleable desires to avoid states in which “I am in a state of pain” is true.

With this, the next question is: How would desirism apply to population ethics?

We are going to look at the various reasons for action that people have and determine whether people generally have more and stronger reason to promote desires that bring about increased population. Some people may have an interest in maximizing desire fulfillment or minimizing non-fulfillment. However, this will be one interest among many – sitting side by side with their aversion to pain, desire for sex, desire for the health and happiness of their children, and the like.

Now, imagine a couple alone in the wilderness. Alone, they have many and strong desires that cannot be fulfilled as well as they could be if the couple had people around with whom they can trade and call on for help. There is nobody to take care of food gathering while they are sick or injured, nobody to set their bones or to help them with any task that requires more than four hands. They have a very limited capacity to take care of specialization and trade – allowing one person to spend all of their time making arrowheads so that their arrowhead production is most efficient and trading those arrowheads for food and hides. As they get older and less capable of doing things for themselves, they become more vulnerable to desire-thwarting events.

They have many and strong reasons to add to their population - and few reasons to promote desires that would inhibit population growth.

Yet, each additional person provides a smaller benefit. Yet, each additional person also consumes a share of available resources, some of which are finite. This greater competition for finite resources provides agents with reason to promote desires that limit population growth.

I take it to be a point in favor of desirism that it models the population debate as it actually exists. We see people bringing up reasons for action that exist for promoting desires that inhibit population growth. They are not talking about “maximizing desire fulfillment” or “minimizing desire thwarting”. They are talking about limiting competition as a way of avoiding wars, avoiding starvation and shortages of clean water, providing people with a comfortable living environment, and some measure of economic equality. Note: We have some reason to promote an interest in economic equality grounded on the fact that additional resources in the control of any one person provides diminishing marginal desire-fulfilling power. A poor person can fulfill more and stronger desires with a given $100 than a rich person.

Where desirism cannot account for the elements of the current debate in population ethics is where people bring fictions into that debate. Natural moral law (rich people have a natural moral right to keep all the property they can acquire), intrinsic values (including claims about the intrinsic value of desire fulfillment), divine commands (divine prohibitions on the use of birth control), impartial observers, social contracts, decisions made by committes behind a vail of ignorance, and other fictions that are a part of current debate are to be discarded.

This is how desirism would approach population ethics.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

On Guns and Drugs

I have been asked,

What is the [desirism] perspective on gun control?

Which is a subject I have been thinking about recently along with . . .

What is the [desirism] perspective on marijuana legalization?

Because it strikes me that the two questions are similar. They concern what to criminalize and what to legalize.

The first thing to note is that desirism has no position on any specific issue. One person can hold that gun control is a good thing, and another that it is bad, and both appeal to desirism. This is true in the same sense that one paleontologist can argue that the T-Rex was a predator, and another that it was a scavenger, and both be scientists.

That is to say, the disputants will agree that there is only one right answer. They will agree on the types of evidence relevant to determining that answer. However, with the available evidence, they still may come to different conclusions. This will not disqualify either one from being a scientist.

Desirism has more to do with how one argues for a position than with the conclusions one comes up with. Desirism involves appealing to the malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. It makes no reference to intrinsic values, divine commands, natural moral law, disinterested observers, social contracts, decisions made behind a vail of ignorance, or any other fiction.

On this measure, I would start with a love of freedom.

We have many and strong reason to promote in others an affection for freedom such as to cause people generally have a motivating reason to oppose restrictions in freedom. As soon as somebody proposes a reduction in freedom, the good person is hesitant and doubtful. He may ultimately be forced by the weight of evidence to conclude that a reduction in freedom is necessary. However, a reduction in freedom is a regrettable necessity, not something to be cheered or celebrated.

Overriding this presumption of liberty requires a presentation of evidence, much like the presentation of evidence in a court of law. In a trial, one presumes that the accused is innocent - that the accused should walk out of the courtroom unharmed, and it is the duty of the prosecutor to provide sufficient evidence to override that presumption. The desire to do no harm to an innocent person - to make those who would do harm prove that it is necessary - provides the motivational foundation for this. However, this is consistent with the possibility that the prosecutor will succeed, and the jurist with an aversion to calling for somebody to be harmed reluctantly agrees that, in this case, the evidence is enough to support that regrettable choice.

The same attitude suggests a reluctance to bring harm to the owner of a handgun or the user of marijuana -but a reluctance that can be overridden with sufficient evidence.

Do we have sufficient evidence to override a presumption of liberty on either of these two issues?

To carry this analogy further, a person charged with rendering a verdict in a criminal case has an obligation to presume innocence, but also has an obligation to listen and carefully evaluate the case that the prosecutor presents. The jurist who presumes innocence, then blindly dismisses all evidence to the contrary and insists on innocence such that nothing could every persuade her to override that presumption, is in violation of one's civic responsibility. She is behaving in a way that a good person - a person with a strong desire to reach a responsible conclusion based on the evidence - would not behave.

In a democracy, where we all have a say on public policy, we are all members of the political jury. To express an opinion on this issue is to say to the world, "I have lived up to my responsibilities as a jurist. I have presumed liberty, responsibly considered the evidence presented against this presumption, and hereby render my verdict that those who use guns/smoke marijuana, reluctantly, deserve to be harmed and to escalate the level of threat against those who resist even to the point of death."

In fact, the vast majority of people who render a verdict on these issues have failed to live up to these responsibilities. They are not "good people", at least in this regard. They render opinions and are willing to inflict or unwilling to prevent harms based on weak and superficial arguments. The most common reason for one's verdict in either of these issues is not based on a presumption of liberty and a careful evaluation of the evidence against liberty. It is grounded on what will generate cheers or jeers among fellow members of whatever tribe that person self-identifies with. Bumper-sticker arguments and facebook memes are the "evidence" of contemporary debate.

If we were to do this right, we would begin with a presumption of liberty, and invite - without hostility or malice - the person who thinks that liberty is to be restricted in these cases to present their best evidence and to judge accordingly. In some cases, where we cannot find a person to defend or to oppose a particular proposition, then we would be wise to appoint one and to charge them with making the best case possible.

That is what we should do here.

I am wondering . . . on either of these issues . . . does anybody have evidence that they care to present? Recognizing the fact that, where no evidence is presented, a presumption of liberty determines our final verdict.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Some Thoughts on Criminal Justice

I am going to use a comment I got from my previous post to continue my discussion on criminal justice.

I have been questioning the "right to remain silent" - arguing that where it is permissible to compel Person A to provide information relevant to Person B's guilt or innocence, I cannot seem to find a good reason not to compel Person A to give information relevant to Person A's guilt or innocence.

This drew the following response:

I enjoy your blog but this is totally without merit. The state must prove it's case in criminal court. Torture or threat to make someone make a claim, false or not, is not the american way or desirable.

The Presumption of Innocence

On the issue that the state must prove its case in criminal court, I have raised no objections. In fact, I have repeatedly defended the proposition that an aversion to harming the innocent (a malleable aversion we all have many and strong reasons to promote) implies a motivation to ensure that harm not be inflicted on people without good reason to believe it is justified. This implies a burden of proof on the part of those who would cause harm, not on the part of those who would be harmed.

Furthermore, it argues that such a case must be presented to an impartial jury not bound by their own desires to conclude the case one way or another. Those who would cause harm are too likely to see skew their interpretation of the evidence as justifying harm whenever it provides a benefit to them. Those who would be harmed too often see their punishment as unjustified regardless of the evidence.

We have many and strong reasons to hold in utter contempt those arrogant and violent individuals who think themselves fit to serve as judge, jury, and executioner over others.


On the issue of torture, I have repeatedly raised objection here as well. When Bush and company lowered the worldwide aversion to torture, they created a world culture that made torture psychologically easier. He effectively told every dictator and warlord - and those who support them, "Go ahead and torture. Other things you do may be wrong, but this is not one of them." He particularly gave the world permission to capture and torture Americans. "How can you object? We are merely doing what your own Justice Department said it is permissible to do."

Compelling People to Testify

Furthermore, I have demonstrated that the claim that a, "threat to make somebody make a claim, false or not, is not the American way," is false.

We do threaten people to make a claim. We compel them to come to court and tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". Those who refuse are held in contempt of court, fined, imprisoned, and - if they choose to resist or to flee these punishments - pursued by people with guns and state permission to use.

In fact, we compel people not only to make statements in a court of law, but in some cases compel them in certain circumstances to make statements having a specific content. "If you refuse to testify against your partner, we are going to increase the charges against you and add years to your punishment. We may even kill you for refusing, as this will influence our decision to seek the death penalty." What is this if not a case of compelling a person to make a certain type of claim?

Under such a system, a person who has nothing useful to offer to the police - nothing they can bargain with - have an incentive to make stuff up. It is subject to the same type of objections that apply to compelling people to testify against themselves - the problem of people presenting false testimony because it provides them with a means for avoiding harm.

Compelling People to Testify Against Themselves

We even compel people to be a witness against themselves when we tell them that refusing to confess to a lesser crime means risking a public trial and a chance of being convicted of a greater crime. Plea bargaining is difficult to understand as anything other than threatening greater harm to those who refuse to be a witness against themselves.

In fact, any American arrested is foolish to think that the invoking the right to remain silent will not be punished by a judicial system that rewards "cooperative" prisoners and adds charges and increases punishment levels against those who are judged to be "uncooperative".


The question remains - is there a defense to be had for a moral right against self-incrimination that does not, at the same time, condemn plea-bargaining or the subpoena power of the courts?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The "Right" to Remain Silent

I am having trouble coming up with a moral case for a "right to remain silent".

If Person A can be compelled to come to court and provide information relevant to the guilt or innocence of Person B, from where comes the moral objection to compelling Person A to provide information relevant to the guilt or innocence of Person A?

As I mentioned yesterday, when some people are given control over state violence, there is reason to take steps to avoid abuses of that power. History has shown that a common form of abuse is found where those who have control of state violence use it to extract confessions from rivals, critics, anybody who has something that the person in power wants, or anybody that those in power wants to harm for its own sake. Those (unreliable) confessions are then used as evidence in trial.

To help prevent these abuses, it may be wise to adopt a rule that says that coerced confessions are unreliable and often do not serve the interests of justice and are, for those reasons, inadmissible.

However, we are not basing this rule on a right against self-incrimination. We are basing it on the need to provide true and relevant information in a court of law - a need that gives us reason to dismiss "evidence" we hare reason to judge as potentially untrue and contributing to injustice.

I wish to digress for a moment and discuss "rights" in the context of desirism.

Desirism denies the existence of intrinsic values or natural rights and duties.

In the context of desirism, to say, "A has a right to X" (at least in this sense) is to say that others may not violently interfere with her obtaining X. Janet's right to freedom of speech means that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a strong aversion to responding to Jane's words or expressions (including cartoons) with violence or threats of violence. And that we may use punishments such as condemnation to promote such an aversion and against those who respond to words and expressions with violence.

To say that a person who believes in flying horses should not be seen as a reliable journalist violates no right to freedom of speech. It advocates no violence and speaks only about private actions that fit within the free choices of all agents. On the other hand, rounding up and arresting atheist bloggers or threatening to kill or imprison anybody who insults a particular religion does violate this right to freedom of speech. We have many and strong reasons to respond to these threats of violence - let along the violence themselves - with moral condemnation. If any religious scripture calls for responding to words and expressions with violence, then that scripture gets the moral facts wrong and provides good evidence that the authors of that scripture had a limited understanding of moral facts.

Now, back to the "right" to remain silent.

A right against self-incrimination would exist if there were many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to responding to the decision to remain silent with punishment. However, we allow - and we have good reason to allow - a violent response if Person A remains silent about facts relevant to Person B's guilt. Person A is subpoenaed to show up in court and to give testimony where, if she does not obey, she is subject to arrest and imprisonment by people with guns who will escalate the level of violence even further if she resists these penalties. This is precisely a case of responding to a decision to remain silent with punishment. Why not allow prosecutors to subpoena and demand the testimony of the accused?

We still have reason to worry whether the information is reliable.

However, self-incrimination is not the only type of information that cannot be trusted.

In fact, it should be easier to coerce Person A into providing false information about Person B than it is to get Person A to provide false information about Person A. In the latter case, the person providing false information against oneself needs to be concerned with the effects that the false information will have on their own future. Whereas, when a person is coerced into giving false information about somebody else, it would take an extraordinary amounts of empathy to come up with the same level of concern.

This is particularly true where the State (or any official person with control of state violence) has the power to pay people to say what the State wants them to say, or to punish them for refusing to say what the State wants them to say. Taking years off of a prison sentence or adding years based on whether the "witness" says something the State likes or refuses to do is also an invitation to unreliable testimony.

We could respond to this concern in these types of cases by prohibiting people accused of a crime from testifying against each other, or by refusing to allow this fact to affect prison sentences or other rewards and punishments depending on the content of the testimony.

This might actually be a good idea. However, even if we were willing to go this far in cases of Person A testifying in the case of Person B, it would not justify an absolute prohibition on Person A testifying in the case of Person A.

From where can we get a prohibition on self-incrimination? Or, is this simply one of those cultural norms that we have adopted and passed on without thinking about it?